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Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis

Monday, July 11, 2016

(Washington, D.C.) July 11, 2016 — Matthew Soerens is the U.S. Director of Church Mobilization for World Relief — an international non-profit specializing in refugee resettlement — and co-author of a new book called Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis.

Drawing from history, public policy, psychology, many personal stories, and their own unique Christian worldview, Soerens and his co-authors offer a nuanced and compelling portrayal of the plight of refugees and the extraordinary opportunity we have to love our neighbors as ourselves. 

Below is an edited version of our conversation about the book, worldwide displacement issues and the Christian response to the refugee crisis. Listen to the full conversation in the audio window below.

Could you first paint a broad picture of what the book is about?

Our book, Seeking Refuge, is designed to be a tool as refugees in general have become a heated political issue, especially in the United States. People are concerned about refugees in ways that I don’t think most people were a year ago. We — myself, Steven Bowman, and Dr. Issam Smeir — have written this book especially for the Christian community, to ask, how do we think about this issue in ways that are informed by the facts? There is so much misinformation right now, especially as it relates to refugee resettlement in the United States, but also in the broader context of refugees around the world and other displaced people. How can we apply our faith to this question and how do we respond in ways that we think are consistent with who Jesus would call us to be?

Anti-refugee sentiment seems to be rising both in the U.S. and in many other parts of the world — how do you respond to the concerns that so many folks have about the security and economic risks of welcoming refugees?

I have a two-part answer whenever people bring up those concerns, especially if I’m talking to someone who shares my Christian faith. I would start by reminding people that if we’re going to be serious about following Jesus, even if it is risky, we should love. Jesus’ example of what it means to love your neighbor was the story of the Good Samaritan: a guy was beaten up on the side of the road and a priest and a Levite, the religious leaders, passed on by. But a Samaritan, who was religiously and ethnically different from the beaten man, has compassion and helps him. 

To me, that tells us that our neighbor whom we are called to love is whoever is in need, not just someone who lives in our zip code or shares our ethnicity or religion. It also tells me that the Samaritan was probably putting himself at some risk to stop on that dangerous road and help that person. But it was still what it meant to love his neighbor, and it did cost him something — the text tells us that he paid from his own money to have the man taken care of at an inn. So even if it was risky, even if there were economic costs, as a Christian I can’t just say, well then I’m excused of that obligation.

All that said, I don’t think it’s very risky, especially in the context of the U.S. A lot of Americans see the imagery of large numbers of people getting off of a boat in Europe for example, and they think somehow that this is the process we have for refugees coming to the United States, and it’s very, very, very different. That’s primarily because those individuals are seeking asylum in Europe, and most of them will probably be granted asylum. But it’s a very different process in the United States where, because of the Atlantic Ocean separating us from most of those significant conflicts like in Syria or Afghanistan or Iraq, unless you have a tourist visa which is a very, very small percentage of those people, they don’t have an option to show up to the United States and claim asylum. 

Those who come as refugees are carefully vetted. They are selected overseas, screened and interviewed overseas. They often interview other people to confirm their stories. They do background checks and retina scans and fingerprints and all those things. Various elements of the government are involved, including the Department of Homeland Security, State and Defense, the National Counter-Terrorism Center, and the FBI. Only those very few who are selected and then pass through that screening process, and health screening as well, are allowed to come to the United States.

Seeking Refuge is written particularly from a faith-based perspective— one of the chapters notes that Jesus was a refugee — how does your faith inform how you think about the arrival of refugees to our country?

My faith is really important to me; as a Christian I would say that the Bible should be informing how I think about any tough issue, but the issue of refugees and immigration is actually a topic the Bible talks about lot. 

The Hebrew word for an immigrant or foreigner, gair, appears in the Old Testament 92 times, and often in the context of God telling the Israelites that they are to love the foreigner who resides among them, they are to seek justice for him or her. The immigrant is often mentioned alongside the orphan or the widow as vulnerable people whom God loves and whom he commands his people to love. The Israelites are also told part of the reason they are to know how to treat refugees and other immigrants is because they were foreigners in the land of Egypt. 

In the Biblical story they were enslaved in Egypt, and after God rescued them in the story of the Exodus, he tells them you need to remember it was my grace that brought you from that place of desperation to where you are now, because if you forget that, and you think that you made this all for yourself, that you pulled yourself up by your own bootstraps, then you’ll turn to the people who come after you to your land and you’ll be just as terribly to them as Pharaoh was to you. 

I think that should resonate with us as both Christians and as Americans. I have immigrant roots in this country. My ancestors are from Holland, they came in the 1850s. We’re proud of our immigrant roots, but I think the irony is then we see immigrants coming today and so often our attitude is send them back. The attitude is, well those people are different than our people were, which is what has been said about just about every immigrant group, going back to the German’s who came to Pennsylvania before it was even an independent country. 

Benjamin Franklin, in 1750, said “those people could no more adopt our language and customs than they could adopt our complexion.” Which to me is funny because I could never distinguish between an English and a German person’s skin tone, but to Franklin it was such a chasm it could never be undone. 

And the same thing about the Irish and then the Chinese, if you look at the history of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, some of the rhetoric around the Chinese are very racialized things that we would be very embarrassed by today, but it was part of the basis for one of our first federal immigration laws. 

We sometimes remember Ellis Island very romantically, and there were certainly brave people, but some of the mythology there isn’t quite right, they didn’t show up and learn English the first day they got off the boat. And we also forget how disliked they were by the people who were already here, and part of that was a religious dynamic, there were a lot of Protestant Christians who were already here who said, we don’t want Catholics, we don’t want Jews.

Another chapter focuses on the path of “strangers to neighbors to family.” Can you talk a bit about the rich cultural and business traditions that refugees are able to bring to their new countries?

One of the things that’s exciting about receiving refugees is, this isn’t new to the United States. We can look back, not just far into history but to relatively recent history and see how much of a blessing refugees have been for the United States. One of the best examples of that is the Vietnamese community in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In fact my co-author Issam had the privilege of meeting President Carter, who signed the Refugee Act of 1980, and President Carter was recollecting how he was having 10,000 Vietnamese refugees coming into the country every month towards the end of his term. In 1980 we admitted more than 200,000 refugees, we’ve never come close to repeating that. 

We actually tell the story of a young woman in the book who is now an attorney in Southern California, who came in as a child from Vietnam. And she’s not an atypical example. If you look at the Vietnamese community now, most of them either came in as refugees or are the children of refugees, they have higher incomes than the average American citizen, they are very well integrated, many have gone onto higher education, and they have also been uniquely entrepreneurial, which is actually highly typical of refugees. One example we look at in the book is the nail salon industry. That industry was largely created by the Vietnamese and the Vietnamese-American population. Before they were here, only the super-wealthy would have their nails done, and they it made a service that a lot of average Americans can benefit from. It’s not that they stole anyone else’s jobs, they created a whole new business and a whole new market that has significantly benefitted the country.  

There are also studies that suggest refugees are disproportionately likely to start businesses, we cite a study out of Columbus, Ohio, looking at all the small businesses created in Columbus by refugees, many of them Somali refugees. They start small businesses at the rate of about twice as often as U.S. citizens. Sometimes those small businesses don’t stay small. 

I don’t know if most people are familiar with the name Sergey Brin, but pretty much everyone in the world is familiar with Google. Sergey Brin was a refugee from the former Soviet Union who was persecuted because he was Jewish, and was accepted to the United States and brought in by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and resettled here in the United States, and he went on to co-found Google, which by one measure is the most valuable company in the world right now, and it certainly employs a whole lot of people. 

Sometimes we think about how many jobs these refugees will take, but we forget to ask the question of how many jobs will this refugee create? Part of that, from a theological perspective goes back to believing that refugees, like every other human person, are made in the image of God, meaning that there is an incredible amount of potential in each person. We make a mistake if we talk about refugees as a burden, and forget the blessing that they can be.

You close the book with a reference to President Reagan and his invocation of a shining city on a hill. What does that represent to you?

First of all, I think that it’s interesting at a time when this issue has become very partisan, President Reagan had a very open view towards immigrants. He talked about the United States as a shining city on a hill, open to all. If they had to have walls, then there should be doors. Those with the will to come in could come in. Which I think is really inspirational, but there’s a better inspiration for me than that—that term “a shining city upon a hill” wasn’t invented by President Reagan, it wasn’t invented by early colonists to the United States, it’s a quote from Jesus. 

Jesus told his disciples in the Gospels, “You are the light of the world, like a city on a hill.” The idea was, you are to be my representatives. You, the Church, are to let your light shine. That’s really my hope with this book, that in the middle of an incredible crisis and indescribable human suffering, the Church in its various forms and manifestations would stand up around the world like never before and say, we are going to respond as Jesus would and we are going to serve you whether you are a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist, or an Atheist, we are going to love you, we’re going to welcome you in, and we’re going to stand with you to make sure you’re treated fairly. I really believe as we do so it will point people back to who Jesus is. 

The book was released July 5, learn more about it here or on Amazon hereShop at AmazonSmile and a portion of your purchase will be donated to Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, at no additional cost to you.